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Why You Should Use Renewable Energy to Power Multi-Story Buildings


The good news is global greenhouse gas emissions remained static in 2016 and went down by close to 3% in 2015. But the bad news is, it’s not enough!

Greenhouse gases continue to be a concern. More than 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide – the main greenhouse monster- were added to the atmosphere in 2016. Along with other pollutants, carbon dioxide’s ill effects can range from the rise in temperatures to extreme weather conditions. Leakage from oil and gas exploration and cattle led to a 1% rise in methane – another greenhouse gas. The most recent report by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency showed that the U.S. has witnessed a 2% reduction in its carbon dioxide emissions in 2016.

But, clearly, there are more challenges to cope with, given the rising population, fuel consumption, and booming construction activities. Green building initiatives are the way forward for curbing the toxic emissions.

Commitment to clean energy in New York

It is heartening to note that there is growing emphasis on achieving a fossil-free status. New York, for example, increased solar power usage by 800% from the 2011 capacity of 83.06 to 743.65 MW in 2016. With an investment of $1.5 billion in renewable energy, the government has plans on expanding the solar power generation capacity and to create more jobs in the coming years.

In New York as elsewhere in the country, more and more residential and commercial building owners increasingly are switching over to using solar panels for meeting energy needs. Multi-story apartments as well benefit in numerous ways by going in for solar systems. Even if the initial costs are a little high, they can be recovered in a matter of five years or less while saving on monthly electricity bills. The Benedict Realty Group, although spent one million for installing solar panels on different projects of the group, estimate that they will recover the cost in five years. As the group owner describes, the savings on monthly bills is almost 70%.

A report by the New York State Energy and Research Development (NYSERD) indicates the state has initiated a number of measures to boost the renewable energy sector. Close to $14 million was invested to encourage clean energy start-ups with a result of $284 million return by way of private investment. Conducting microgrid contests, funding new projects to encourage the development of renewable heating and cooling technology are some other great initiatives taken by the state.

Power hungry multi-story buildings

Multi-story buildings are great guzzlers of power! In 2014, buildings in midtown Manhattan in New York City consumed more power than the entire nation of Kenya! Multi-story buildings consumed more than two-thirds of the energy in New York City.

Tall buildings are power hungry with the huge amounts of energy utilized for heating and cooling, waste management, elevators, lighting and much more.  

The 2009 law requires owners of buildings that span more than 50,000 square feet to annually report the energy and water consumption as part of the efforts to reduce carbon emissions. According to the 2014 benchmarking report, ten thousand building owners submitted the energy use as being 120 trillion British thermal units (Btu) which is equivalent to what is generated by four power plants!

According to 2016 estimates, apartment buildings in New York use anywhere between 65,000 to 70,000 Btu of energy. The 2014 benchmarking data of the city showed 87% of the total energy used in large buildings in the city is consumed by multifamily and office buildings that are multi-storied.  Multifamily buildings consume a large part of the power for heating and cooling while office buildings need more power for lighting and other electrical loads.

In most of the tall buildings in the city, air conditioners that are placed on walls or windows have openings that let hot air creep in during summers and escape during winters.

Why You Should Use Renewable Energy to Power Multi-Story BuildingsThe leakage area of 167,000 square foot is as much as a block area in Manhattan. Not only does this loss incur a heavy operational cost of $180 million for building owners but also leads to carbon dioxide emissions of up to 525,000 tons. Owners cannot afford to bear this huge cost while also being guilty of contributing towards greenhouse gas emissions. Experts estimate replacing these inefficient air conditioners and going in for renewable energy to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions by almost 90%.

Electricity takes up 59% of the total energy used in New York buildings; while 24% comes from natural gas, just 6% comes from the district steam system in Manhattan. Space heating takes up most of this energy in buildings at 27%, while 16% is taken up by plug loads. Hot water, ventilation, cooling, and lighting are the other major consumers of energy.  Lifts or elevators, processes take up 17% of total energy consumed.

The multi-story buildings also contributed 67% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions mainly from using energy for heating, lighting, and for cooling.

New York City Mayor has instituted various measures to reign in the use of fossil fuels and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. Along with fossil fuel caps on multi-story buildings above 25000 square feet, energy efficient upgrades are also made mandatory. These measures are expected to result in a 7% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.

Some additional measures being considered are to impose penalties on buildings that do not conform to energy efficiency and fuel cap standards. The fine could be as much as $60,000 per year for energy violations for a 30,000 square feet building. The fine would be as much as two million dollars for a one million square foot building that does not meet the energy saving mandates.

New York aims to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by the year 2050. To meet these objectives, a number of steps towards using renewable energy sources for buildings have already been initiated.

More than one million megawatt hours of energy was produced from solar with a majority coming from rooftop solar panels. Renewable sources accounted for 24% of New York’s electricity in 2016. The Reforming Energy Vision aims to increase this figure to 50% by 2030. Which means renewable sources will replace fossil fuels and electricity as the major source of power in New York in the coming years.

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Using solar energy

Solar energy systems connected to the electricity grid comprises of the photovoltaic cell to supply energy to a building. Excess energy produced during daytime is exported to the grid. The in-built battery storage takes care of the energy needs during the night.

PV cells directly convert sunlight into electrical energy. Each solar panel is made of a number of connected PV cells while multiple panels constitute the solar arrays. Solar farms are large-scale solar arrays that have the capacity to produce power on a commercial scale. In tune with reducing carbon emissions and the goal of achieving 50% reliance on renewable energy by 2030, a 3,152-panel rooftop solar farm was installed at Brooklyn Navy Yard recently. In California, solar panels have already been made mandatory for all new buildings up to ten stories.

Using wind energy

Wind turbines, according to experts, have the potential to produce 39 GW of power for more than fifteen million homes in New York City. Currently, about 1,812 MW megawatts of clean energy is produced by wind turbines. Experts believe wind power sourced from the turbines in the Atlantic Ocean could become the major source of renewable energy for the state. The government objective is to produce 2.4 GW by the year 2030 that can power up 1.25 million homes. In 2016, wind energy accounted for 6% of the electricity supplied in the U.S.

Advantages of renewable energy

Renewable energy sources have multiple advantages over fossil fuels apart from being freely available in nature in abundance.

No greenhouse gases: There are no greenhouse gas emissions including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide or sulfur that traps heat. The International Panel on Climate Change believes the processes of installation, manufacturing, operations, and decommissioning involve negligible global warming emissions. Natural gas emits 0.6 and 2 pounds per kilowatt-hour of carbon dioxide while coal has an emission rate between 1.4 and 3.6 pounds of the greenhouse gas. Solar energy emits 0.07 pounds of the gas per kilowatt hour and wind's emission ranges from 0.02 to 0.04 pounds.

Biomass emissions can depend on the source and experts believe sustainable sources of biomass can have minimal greenhouse gas emissions while unsustainable sources can contribute significantly to carbon dioxide emissions. Increasing production of renewable energy production would help reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 277 million metric tons by the end of 2025.

Public health benefits: Renewable energy sources do not produce heavy metals including arsenic, lead, and mercury that are released during fossil fuel extraction. Producing energy from renewable sources instead of fossil fuels can mean public health benefits.  Heavy metal pollutants released by fossil fuels including natural gas and coal plants contaminate both water and air. These metals are linked to a wide range of health concerns including asthma, allergy, respiratory conditions, neurological damage, certain cancers, and heart disease. Chronic diseases not only mean lost work days but a significant rise in healthcare costs. Replacing with clean energy can mean increased productivity with better health profiles in the community. According to expert estimates, anywhere between $360 billion to $886 billion is spent on health conditions resulting from fossil fuels. This translates to about 6% of the nation’s GDP (Gross domestic product).

Conservation of water: Fossil fuels are a drain on the natural water resources. Not only do they result in water contamination but also require huge amounts of water during operation, maintenance, and extraction processes. Fracturing or fracking calls for large volumes of water to extract natural gas while thermal plants that use oil, coal or gas need water for cooling. Drilling wells into the earth can lead to contamination of groundwater that can have an impact on agriculture and drinking water supply.  Geothermal plants and biomass plants also need water for cooling.

Renewable energy also does not impact the environment, unlike nuclear power.

Why multi-story buildings should use renewable energy sources

Drop in installation costs: New construction of residential apartments are on the rise in New York with 5,300 new projects in 2017 as compared to just 186 in 2011. The rising demand for solar power has resulted in a 70% drop in costs of installation. The reduction in costs also has to do with the government incentives, discounts, and tax rebates. Tax credits and benefits have cut the cost of installation between $10,000 to $25,000 for a single-family house.

Leasing and third-party owned solar systems are another way of cutting down on initial installation costs. Customers do not have to pay for installations with the lease or agreements for power purchase with third-party owned systems. A fixed cost for the electricity used is paid by consumers for a long period of time. Often, the utility companies or property developers bear the cost of installation. In 2014, a majority of residential solar systems were owned by third-party owners.

Lowered electricity bills: Solar panels lead to 85% reduction in energy bills and when taken cumulatively for a building, the saving is considerable. For each apartment owner, the bill can be as low as $18 during summers, and $50 during winters. When compared to the earlier bills in the range of $300 per month, there is no doubt about the huge cost savings that renewable energy sources can provide.

Tax incentives: Tax incentives include a 25% income tax credit for metered and grid-connected solar systems in multifamily residences. Residential buildings are also exempt from sales tax of 8.875% for photovoltaics and solar space and water heating. A fifteen-year exemption on property tax is the other major tax sop offered in New York State. The tax exemption means- while the building’s property value increases, there is no consequent increase in tax. Saving on property tax makes a lot of business sense in New York given the high tax rates for properties.
With the federal tax credit of 30% of the cost of the system, the total reduction in initial installment would be 50%.Cash rebates of up to $1000 per kilowatt of capacity are also an added incentive for building owners to switch to solar.

Easy to install: The contemporary solar panel systems can be easily installed on any roof shape or size.  Because of the modular system, even when one of the modules malfunction, the entire system is not compromised. The building structure does not have to be altered to install the rooftop solar panels.

Boost to the local economy: Solar power goes a long way in boosting the local economy. The sector provided employment to more than 170,000 people in the U.S. in 2014 alone. More than 6,000 solar companies across fifty states are contributing more than a billion to the economy every year. Renewable energy sources generate a vast array of jobs in many areas including project development, manufacturing, turbine installation, maintenance, logistics, legal and financial consultations.  
According to the 2017 report by New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA), the renewable energy industry could generate an income between $5.6 billion and $8.7 billion annually. The jobs generated in solar industry increased by 30% in 2015.  The industry in the state is set to provide 26,800 new jobs in 2017 according to the NYSERDA report.

Works in any weather: Solar water heaters can work on cloudy days and in winters according to the Department of Energy and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. Although in overcast weather, the capacity of solar panels to generate electricity can be lower than on a perfectly sunny day, there is still significant power produced. Solar panels can usually produce 10-25% of their normal capacity on cloudy days. There would be some fluctuation of the power generated based on the cloud density or the type of panel used. Some panels can leverage the red and blue wavelengths better and can capture a broader range of diffuse light. This lets these solar panels generate more electricity even in cloudy conditions. With advanced technology, there could be solar panels that can capture ultraviolet rays as well.

Besides, the entire year’s availability of sunlight is what matters more than a few days of overcast weather. Countries like Germany and cities like Portland in Oregon are known for receiving less sunlight than most other regions in the U.S. Yet, Germany has 25 GW of solar power capacity installed which is equal to half of the world’s capacity!

Building owners in New York who are not able to install solar panels will be able to buy solar energy from nearby solar projects under the “community shared solar” plan. So, whether your building has lots of shade or you do not have control of the building’s roof, you can still benefit from shared solar.

With so much going for renewable energy sources, every multi-story building needs to pitch in to support New York’s commitment to clean energy.

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